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Category Archives: flicks

Critical or Contrary?

Critical or contrary – which one are you? More importantly, can anyone else tell the difference?

The topic is on my mind thanks to something Gina said to me a few weeks ago. E and I were chatting with Gina after the last show of her Fringe Fest play. We joked about different narrative structures – ways her play of three connected one-acts could be turned backwards or inside out to get a different reaction.

(I know, nerds, right?)

At some point this phrase emerged from my lips:

That would be very Nolan-esque – like Inception, only without being awful.

Now, I don’t want to get into Inception drama – we’re all entitled to an opinion. I typically love Nolan, but what’s relevant here is people who liked Inception outnumber the dislikers nine to one and I’m in the “dislike” camp.

That’s where Gina’s response comes in. She whipped her head over to me and said,

Oh, Peter, you’re just contrary.

After years of having buck teeth and big ears, very few insults get under my skin, but this one cut deep.

I protested, “I’m not contrary! I’m just critical. I like plenty of things other people like. Twitter! Dark Knight! Lady Gaga!”

Despite my protests, Gina stuck to her label. To her, I’m contrary – I frequently dislike things enjoyed by a majority.

I don’t see that as contrary – just critical. If my reasoned response is to dissent on a musician or a movie while 90% of the world loves it, that’s part of my critical barometer. If you don’t like Inception either, maybe you’ll agree with some of my other opinions. Whole recommendation engines have been built on this idea, like Netflix and Hunch.

Disagreeing just means I’m critical, not contrary. Right? If we all agreed all of the time, what would be the point of art?

Let’s return to my opening query: critical or contrary – which one are you?

The answer is probably both. It depends on the perspective.

Like the proverbial stopped clock, any committed critic is going to come off contrary sometimes, just like a dedicated contrarian can still hit the critical mark on occasion.

Your challenge is that people listen to critics and ignore what’s contrary. When you’re the odd one out as a critic you still have to frame your opinion in a way that can engage and inspire your audience – even if that’s just your best friend.

Which one am I? In my head I’m a critic, and when it comes to music almost everyone  I know trusts me to be one – because I offer reasoned opinions about everything from Gaga to Rodrigo and Gabriella. With movies, if I only take the time to dish on popular films I dislike (which are numerous) clearly I’m coming out all wrong. If I want my disappointment in Inception to be taken seriously maybe I need to dial up my enthusiasm about movies slipping past other people’s radars.

What about you?

Indie TiMER gets RomCom formula right, sans formula

Most romantic comedies are neither romantic nor a comedy.

Discuss.

Really, is there much romance in watching two highly paid stars drift together over the course of two hours? And, are the situations ever truly funny, rather than simply awkward?

I don’t watch RomComs for those very reasons – they emphasize wattage over chemistry, and winces over laughter. My own life is more romantic and comedic than most movies in the genre.

None of that is true for TiMER, a beautiful, witty, indie flick full of love and laughter. It’s a romantic comedy through and through, but it hardly delves into the pedestrian trope of most RomComs thanks to its clever titular premise.

A near neighbor to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and similar to the quirky premise of How I Met Your Mother, TiMER is speculative fiction without the ray guns or alien races. It depicts an alternately reality only a shade different from our own, where science has found a way not only to divine your soul mate, but to define the exact day you’ll first meet them.

The process is simple. Visit a TiMER storefront (as ubiquitous as a cell phone store) and have a small digital screen implanted into your wrist. Your screen will count down to zero: the day you meet your true love.

It sounds ideal – you’ll know exactly when the one is really the one; no more worrying you’ll die alone or dating your way through losers.

Right?

Step-sisters Oona (Emma Caufield) and Steph (Michelle Borth) are a microcosm of why finding the one isn’t as simple as science. Oona’s TiMER won’t start counting down, while Steph’s is ticking towards a date in the far-flung future. And their little brother, barely old enough to have the device installed, gets an unexpected result.

Are any of the three situations better than going on blind dates, or having unrequited crushes? Both disappear from life when finding your soul mate is a matter of waiting for a special ring tone, which explains why many people in the world of TiMER go defiantly bare-wristed. Otherwise, romance would be extinct – no more courting, or transforming from friends into lovers. At least, not if you’re hoping it will last forever.

Emma Caulfield, most known for portraying the daffy, rabbit-fearing, reformed-demon Anya on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, carries the film with comedic aplomb. It’s surprising to see her take center stage so handily after watching her as an ensemble player.

Caulfield is just neurotic enough to come off normal, an orthodontist on the verge of 30 who is beginning to worry that it’s her that’s defective rather than her timer. Her typical zaniness is dialed down, leaving her sympathetic and vulnerable as the lovelorn Oona.

Similarly, Michelle Borth plays what could have been a flat depiction of promiscuity as an exercise in ethics. She portrays Steph as smartly self-aware instead of simply slutty (while remaining an utter bombshell). If your true love is years away, why not enjoy yourself with no strings attached with others in the same situation?

The rest of the supporting cast is strong, especially romantic foil John Patrick Amedori, exuding magnetic charm from his first line, and the rest of Ooma and Steph’s extended clan.

The movie wisely plays fast and loose with its science – in lieu of special effects and lengthy expositions it wields a script that injects reality into an unreal situation. The workings of the central device are left largely unexplained and to the viewer’s imagination, leaving room to speculate around the main story.

TiMER finds a way to inject romance into a world supposedly devoid of it, and stays comedic throughout. It’s also the first film so wistfully romantic that I was driven to actually hold my wife’s hand at the climax.

Highly recommended.

TiMER is currently showing in limited release, and is also available for streaming via Netflix.

(not my) Best Pictures

I love and hate media awards ceremonies like The Grammys and the Emmys.

What are they measuring, really? Whatever is “Best”? Best how? Most commercial? Strongest technically? Most likable?

Voters of the various academies aren’t any more interested in thinking hard about the merits of “Best” than the guy that sat next to you on the bus. They nominate and vote for what they like, and they like what they know.

Does that occasionally highlight the best work in a year or coincide with the zeitgeist? Sure. But one look at the Golden Globes and the Grammys tells us that’s not necessarily the case.

The Oscars are the one set of awards that can still excite me. The one that at least nominates the most worthwhile performances and works, even if some genre fare slips through.

However, equal to that excitement, the Academy Awards also introduce skepticism to my film diet. I love a great many event movies, serious movies, and indie movies, but I have a contentious history with Best Picture nominees. It’s a good year if I like 2/5 of them.

Maybe it’s because I already pre-judge movies pretty harshly – before they get heaped with incongruous praise. If I haven’t seen a movie before it gains steam as an Oscar front-runner I become commensurately more skeptical that it’s actually any good. I enjoy being proven wrong (The Queen, Juno), but more often my prophecy is fulfilled and I’m either ambivalent (Michael Clayton) or I hate the movie (The Wrestler).

In this year’s field of ten (of which I’ve only seen the pair of sci-fi flicks) that movie is The Hurt Locker. It may be great; I haven’t seen it. However, my sneaking suspicion is that it will be a tedious movie about THE REAL WAR (TM).

I guess I’ll see. Eventually.

(Seeing only the sci-fi flicks in cinemas is characteristic, as I hardly ever pay theatre prices to watch talking heads. I can safely say neither were best.)

(Okay, maybe Avatar, but not the heavy-handed, lazy bullshit of District 9. )

What should win? I’ll tell you next year, when I’ve seen most of them.

What might win? If Avatar doesn’t neatly sweep it will be splitting heavily with Hurt Locker, leaving an outside shot for one of the smaller films which isn’t too similar (i.e., District 9 and Up are both splintering Avatar votes just on genre/style).

What am I rooting for? I already know I universally despise Coen Brothers movies, and I could care less about Push, so of the remaining films I suppose I’m pulling for Tarantino, even though I suspect I won’t like his movie very much. I suspect I’ll like An Education the best of them all.

.

For what it’s worth, this was my take on 2008:
Benjamin Button, my favorite director and lead actors, but it was shitty, pointless, and overlong.
Frost/Nixon, a decent documentary that was really a movie.
Milk, stunning, beautiful.
The Reader, still avoiding, sounds soul-crushing.
– Winner, Slumdog Millionaire, a middling crowd-pleaser.

Daily Demo: Falling Slowly (Live @ Rehearsal)

A few weeks ago Gina and I convened to brush up on our originals for the impending annual Shubin Theatre Holiday Revue, and in the process caught one of our newer covers on virtual tape.

The song is “Falling Slowly,” the Academy Award winning tune from Once.

Gina saw Once early in its theatrical run – before I had even heard of it. The next day she came to rehearsal and said, “I have to play you this song.” She proceeded to unfurl a beautiful, played-by-ear version of “Falling Slowly.” She narrated her way through: “Here the woman starts singing a higher harmony part.” “And, you see, in the chorus he goes up for falsetto -the lines cross.”

I was enamored with the song immediately, though less so when I heard the warbling official version from the soundtrack. I filed it in the back of my head as something to try as Arcati Crisis at a later date.

That later date came this summer, as we were casting about for some new covers to learn. “What about,” I queried with caution, “playing ‘Falling Slowly’?”

Gina was all over the opportunity, with the caveat that this was to be my chance to sing a song without playing guitar. Which sounds like a nice vacation, but it is actually TERRIFYING – partially because the song is tricky and I sing better harmony while I am playing guitar, but also because I’m simply not used to singing without an instrument (aside from karaoke, which is a different beast).

This live @ rehearsal demo of the song finds us at a late stage of the rehearsal process – we’ve worked out the road-map and harmonies, but we’re still fine-tuning the blend between our voices. We’ll debut our performance of it this Saturday at the Shubin Theatre.

This Is It

I don’t think I had the right idea about Michael Jackson’s This Is It.

I thought it would be a performance blended with documentary – much like Madonna’s fantastic I’m Going To Tell You A Secret. Really it was neither – none of the songs in the film quite made it to being fully realized production numbers, and aside from brief thoughts from the dancers and band there was precious little behind-the-scenes or direct-to-camera interaction.

I still loved it.

It’s not an easy thing to articulate why. Michael is front and center throughout, leading his entourage through the all-hits set of his impending stadium concert. However, he isn’t in full performance mode. He is dressed down (which is still pretty impressive), frequently just “marking” his vocals (gently singing the top or end of each phrase), and working through his choreography (always amazing; in several instances we’re shown the day-to-day differences in split screen).

All of those were reasons I loved it. As you watch, you realize that any behind-the-scenes iteration of documenting Michael’s “real life” would be no more real than one of his music videos. Michael was real when he was engaged in his creative process, and here we get an unprecedented, unadulterated view of that.

The most breathtaking moments of the film are times when a performance begins or ends with no warning – as when Michael working the background vocals of “Human Nature” gives way to a glorious acappella verse of the song, or when he directs his tiny blonde guitarist Orianthi to shred harder and higher on “Beat It.” The line between personal Michael and performance Michael is eroded.

The film is documented by a jarring array of cameras, some high def with perfect angles on the stage, some grainy and far-away – like watching the show on YouTube. For the first few songs I caught myself wondering, They put out a movie of this?. But as This Is It continues I appreciated that it tells the story any way it can.

Since songs were synced to specific tempo tracks (likely from samples or in-ear for the drummer), the filmmakers could piece together the most compelling vocal take across the fiercest band performance, and combine it with video from multiple run-throughs – differentiated by the variety of Michael’s costuming (notably a blinged out Popeye t-shirt, a silver suit jacket with bright red pants, and a peaked-shoulder tuxedo coat that makes him look like Jack from Nightmare Before Christmas).

Unexpectedly, the film finds its greatest success when it incorporates the stunningly crisp background videos shot for the concert. They lend depth and context to the piecemeal performances. A silly take on Thriller falls flat mid-film, but the typically mediocre “Earth Song” is powerful and moving when combined with horrific images of a burnt-out planet.

The best production in the film is undoubtedly “The Way You Make Me Feel,” beginning with Michael adjusting the keyboards by singing the part note-for-note to his band, and giving way to a stunning digital backdrop of the dance-troupe lazing across a multi-story scaffold, silhouetted by the rising sun. Michael delivers one of his most un-marked performances, and you are transported.

Yes, there are familiar eccentricities on display. Jackson is flummoxed when his in-ear monitors are too loud on his first run through a Jackson 5 medley, seemingly nearing a breakdown before the director explains that the volume can simply be turned down. He gives music direction in a peculiar blend of vocal percussion and descriptions of texture, which often seem to leave the vocal director and band-leader puzzled, promising they’ll figure it out later.

All the big hits are covered, with few exceptions – no “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” (or anything else from Off the Wall), no “Will You Be There” or “Remember the Time,” and a curious lack of verses on his theme-song “Man in the Mirror.” Otherwise, it’s everything you would expect – the only surprise is the Jackson 5 medley ending on the relatively obscure (for younger fans, anyway) “Shake Your Body Down to the Ground.”

Perhaps the most genuine moment in the film comes when Michael goes all out on the end of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” with phenom backing vocalist Judith Hill, whose voice is so eerily similar to MJ’s that she is surely doubling him on many of his songs. As she perfectly riffs through the song’s coda the performer in Michael can’t help but follow, egged on by a rapt cadre of dancers in the audience. After finishing out the intense duet, Michael gently admonishes, “You can’t do that to me. I have to save my throat. [To Judith] You’re fine, you’re wonderful. I have to save my throat.”

He smiles, and maybe finishes with “God bless you,” the punctuation on every piece of direction he provides. Every time you hear it you know he means it. This Is It shows Michael Jackson at home the only place he lived his entire life – on stage – and it makes evident not only his prodigious talents but also his depthless gratitude for the people who made it possible – both his crew and his fans alike.

Primer, Primest

I love Primer.Primer Poster A

You’ve probably never heard of it. It’s an obscure, indie, sci-fi movie that’s 77 minutes long with a single special effect, shot on film for under $10,000.

It’s also the 2004 Sundance Grand Jury prize winner, critcally acclaimed, and maybe the best story about time travel ever conceived.

I found out about it in 2005 from Rabi on the day we first set up the DVD player in our house. I bought it that night and watched it three times consecutively.

It’s that kind of movie. I’ve watched it twenty or thirty times since then, almost always two or more times consecutively. It’s one of my favorite films of all time. I want everyone I know to see it, so I can debate it endlessly with them.

(If you have Netflix you can watch it right now, online, for free.)

The problem is, it’s challenging and obscure. For almost half its running time it seems to be about a needlessly-detailed, grown-up, science fair project. The final seven minutes introduce information that alters the rest of the film. By the time you realize its true intrigue, it’s over.

It’s a harder sell than any Nolan film – even though Memento and The Prestige each sketch a close iteration of its plot. Nolan gives the answers and lets you figure out the question. Primer gives you the concepts and let’s you figure out the question.

The answer is not given.

In interviews, writer / actor / director / composer Shane Carruth would say only what the movie was not. He also provided a forum on the movie’s website, where a steadily-increasing number of fans could debate the finer points of the film’s chronology.

(You could also check Wikipedia, but the answer given there is wrong. Maybe. Keep reading.)

Four years went by. Shane closed the forum to new registrants due to a flood of spam and porn. The debate kept churning. And then, something interesting happened: someone solved Primer.

Maybe.

In July 2008 a user posted to the forum that he had solved the Primer puzzle after many dozens of rewatches, and that he was writing a book about it – A Primer Universe. He claimed that he was receiving thousands of requests for the book (never mind that the forum – Primer ground zero – has only 1094 registered users). He claimed that he sent it to Shane and co-star David Sullivan, who both confirmed his theory in its entirety.

Eventually, he posted the book to a blog, leading to other forum users swearing fealty to his theory.

Primer Poster BI read the book. It only makes sense if you have the movie committed to memory. And if you do, it is mind-altering. Game-changing. It completely re-writes the movie, making significant some details that seemed routine and expository. It increases the perceived depth of Shane’s careful plotting exponentially.

If it is real.

This will be the single, most-detailed response to A Primer Universe registered on Google – and I haven’t given any details at all! All other references are mostly on social bookmarking services,a and could have easily been placed by the author. There are no reviews. There is no third party confirmation that Shane or David have read it. There is no evidence of a physical copy ever existing, though he was selling them for some time. The Primer forum users affirming it could be a series of accounts maintained by the author for this exact purpose.

The book itself is a riddle. It could be a fraud. It could even be written and maintained by Shane himself, frustrated that his fans never quite figured out his enigma.

Just like the movie, the riddle of the book is: what is the most prime? It is better to be primer, more prime than the competition.

It’s best to be primest – most prime.

And, when it comes to A Primer Universe it’s as hard to discern its primacy as it is to unravel the cinematic riddle it describes.

9 Reasons I Didn’t Like District 9

I disliked District 9 from the start, but it took until about an hour in for me to reach the “I really might leave this theater” stage.

Mild spoilers, but not as many as the Rolling Stone review.

1. It’s a personal take on sci-fi, except we’re made to dislike the extremely unsympathetic protagonist very early on. A mid-flick attempt to humanize him (pun) didn’t work for me, as he only seemed repentant as a result of his torturous conditions and quickly reverted to being an ass whenever possible.

We’re left with only a vaguely personal connection to a shallowly defined alien sidekick and a well-executed CG tiny alien tot. (The best scene in the movie is when we first visit their home, and find the pair of them to be defiantly intelligent. Well-scripted and -played.)

2. The transition from documentary to omniscient perspective was clumsy – only made worse by continuing use of documentary devices, eventually leading to a transition back to documentary.

3. The documentary portion is too caught up in it’s tasteless racist (speciesist?) humor, and not interested in enough in its characters. Yes, we get it, subhuman treatment of non-humans is a lot like subhuman treatment of people that are different than us. Were you that afraid the theme wouldn’t play to the back row?

(That said, I did love the abortion joke. Most big summer flicks would never go there.)

4. The movie is gross just to be gross. Gore and splatter is one thing, but did we really need the constant vomiting, dripping, severing, and devouring of unsightly food? Again, gimmick in lieu of plot.

5. The major plot maguffin is a complete deus ex machina, which would maybe be forgivable if it wasn’t for all of the antogonists being completely fucking obsessed with the effects of said maguffin.

6. There isn’t a single good bit of dialog in the entire movie, which leaves the audience to be dragged along for the (yes, frequently compelling) ride rather than strongly engaged and eager to follow. They say “fucking” more than I say “awesome.”

7. Aliens are shown to be viciously strong, except where it doesn’t suit the continually contrived story.

8. The action set pieces just didn’t sizzle – lots of noise and wonderful effects, but the confrontations themselves were one-dimensional.

9. The exploding people trick was just done by Watchmen, though I think it was executed better here. Still, shock value was lost.

I’m in the minority to the tune of 80/20 per the TomatoMeter; the review I agree with most completely is Vancouver Voice:

It’s a bore. Blomkamp offers up an ugly world, poorly photographed. There is more debris, more smudged faces, more gore effects packed into this film than are conceivable in the worlds of, say, Ulli Lommel and Lloyd Kaufman. Worse, nothing happens in this film that the viewer can’t anticipate after the first 15 minutes. It’s mockumentary style is rendered inconsistently since there are scenes shot in mock style but to which the implied filmmakers couldn’t have had access. And, like most so-called science fiction these days, it is really a war story in scientific drag. … [T]he narrative eventually devolves into one of those long CGI fight scenes that at least a portion of the viewing public is finding repetitious and uncreative. The film is also achingly obvious in its political message.

Biggest plus? Constant subtitling, of both aliens and hard-to-understand humans. I’ve been watching movies with subtitles for over ten years; I’d watch every movie and tv show that way if I could.